Unknown Territory (USA Day 15)
We woke to rain, and packed miserably. There’s nothing worse than packing a wet tent, apart from maybe mosquito bites on your knees, and I had to deal with both. With nothing to leave behind but wet ground and an abandoned shack with a whole snakeskin hanging from the doorknob, we began what turned out to be an unbelievably dramatic day.
The first twenty miles were achingly slow and muddy. Fifteen hours of rain had turned the path to brown squish, with fallen trees to clamber through and muddy puddles to navigate. (I say navigate; the only option was to rampage through the middle with gritted teeth. No punctures, I’m glad to report.) Then there was the injured cardinal, scarlet and flapping, that cannoned out of a hedge and straight into our paths. We both dodged it, just, but both cardinal and Amy ended up toppling into the riverbank. By the time we reached Cumberland, we were brown from head to toe and cracked when we walked, two cucumber slices short of a spa treatment. We hosed ourselves down at a bike shop and re-stocked at the local Dollar General (without a hilarious yet slightly threatening parking lot visitor) before heading out to begin the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile gravel path that will take us all the way to Pittsburgh. Where the C&O tracked a canal, this one runs along a disused railway, and is both wider and dryer, which is nice.
What isn’t so nice is the 22 straight miles of gradual climbing that we had to endure out of Cumberland. The 3% average meant that our legs never burnt, but the gravel and the incline sapped all the momentum from every pedal stroke. It was torture by dripping tap, an absolute trial for the brain, not least because from mile 15 onwards we assumed we were actually going downhill and couldn’t understand why it was so hard. Thick cloud enveloped us, closing the world to a radius of twenty freezing yards. Then there was the Big Savage Tunnel (actual name) whose nightmarish blackness swallowed us whole. It, too, was full of cloud, so that within seconds we could see neither the light at the end, nor where we’d come from. Today was not without tears.
Then, on the 23rd mile, just when we were sure we could go no further, we crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and found ourselves speeding downhill, suddenly bursting with gravitational potential energy, unstoppable for twenty magnificent miles. The difference was incredible, and the new burst of endorphins was pretty addictive, so that after sixty miles and by the time we were thinking about camping, it was already getting dark, and raining much harder now. The woods were too thick, the ledges too steep, the ground too wet. Nowhere sufficed. The rain became a deluge, so much so that we could barely see, and had to stop by a nameless hut on the side of the path to set up tent in what had now revealed itself to be a thunderstorm.
Dismally, we ate a few bites of food and hung the plastic bag of leftovers off a branch for the many thousands of awaiting bears (“Oh my! What a gone of bears!” we’d sung all day. A tune by my genius niece), then tramped back to the hut to set up our tent. The process of leaving wet things outside and clambering in, while keeping the inside dry, was farcical to the extreme and utterly unsuitable for description, but you can imagine the pale, drippy, shivering scene. Needless to say, we’re moderately dry and moderately happy inside our moderately warm tent, looking forward to a night of moderately comfortable sleep.
Today: 64 Miles
Total : 440 Miles